Bluetooth SIG Specification Enables BLE Mesh Networks

By Claire Swedberg

With the newly released spec, companies can build networks in which Bluetooth Low Energy nodes communicate with each other, as well as with hundreds or thousands of BLE-enabled devices and smartphones that move around a facility.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has released a Bluetooth mesh-networking specification that enables Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices to serve as large-scale networks for building automation, wireless networks and asset tracking.

The specification has been two years in development. The Bluetooth mesh-networking group was established in February 2015. Since then, the group has worked to ensure the scalability, security and interoperability of the mesh network, conducting testing for use in industrial markets. The group conducted 15 testing events and more than 1,300 tests cases during that time.

Ken Kolderup

Mesh networking provides the capacity of BLE nodes to be deployed around a facility and send data to each other, as well as to an unlimited number of other BLE devices, such as sensors, mobile phones or tags that may move around their space. In that way, a large facility—such as a warehouse, a manufacturing site or an office building, for example—could install the nodes without requiring cables, routers or hubs. This would enable the facility to accomplish such tasks as adjusting lighting or thermostats, or to view the locations of thousands of items or individuals if they have a BLE-enabled tag.

Any modern smartphone or tablet can be used to configure a BLE mesh node, as well as serve as part of the mesh network itself. Ken Kolderup, SIG's VP of marketing, says he expects to see products on the market using mesh networks within less than six months.

In 2010, SIG announced Bluetooth Low Energy for point-to-point data transfer between devices. The BLE technology is being used to share location-based content by installing a beacon that transmits to BLE-enabled devices within a beacon's proximity. "Over the past few years," Kolderup says, "this has really taken off." The technology is currently in use for providing product information in stores and exhibit information at museums, as well as information at conference centers, bus stations and other locales.

Beacons are also being used for wayfinding, to help visitors navigate an airport or other facility. "It's evolving to a very, very large market," Kolderup says. In fact, 17,000 new BLE-enabled products were released within the last year, with nearly 3.5 billion products shipped. Until now, however, BLE devices had the capacity to transmit to each other only on a point-to-point basis, while a mesh network could cover a much larger area.

"As mesh is a major new capability being added to Bluetooth," Kolderup states, "we find that it is taking us in new directions." This includes building automation, wireless sensor networks or asset tracking for which tens, hundreds or thousands of devices need to be able to communicate with each other.

Initially, companies are developing solutions using the BLE mesh network for lighting automation. "This serves as a good entry point for other solutions," Kolderup says. For instance, if BLE mesh nodes are built into light switches, an individual could program them using a BLE-enabled smartphone and a provisioning app. That programming command could be received by the closest light switch and then be forwarded via the mesh network to all other switches throughout a building. In that way, the deployment of intelligent lighting could be considerably lower in cost and easier to program than traditional systems.

Such a network could also be utilized for environmental controls. If one BLE node were connected to a sensor detecting sunlight, for instance, that node could communicate with other BLE nodes throughout a building to, for instance, prompt the lowering of blinds based on increased light levels.

Additionally, the nodes could be used for predictive maintenance in a manufacturing or industrial setting. If, for example, a vibration sensor were to detect that a mechanical asset was beginning to fail, the BLE node could issue an alert throughout the mesh network in order to get the response needed from facility personnel quickly.

A mesh network detects the movements of thousands of tagged assets or inventory items moving around an area in which BLE nodes are installed. It offers a low-cost alternative to an active radio frequency identification real-time locating system.

The specifications are available at SIG's website, along with access to test and qualification tools. The organization has completed interoperability testing prior to the release of the specification, building representative networks of more than 1,000 nodes.

The mesh specification operates on BLE 4.0 devices and greater. Encryption is provided in a network and application layer for security against hacks. The nodes will also be interoperable. "We have a strong belief that for certain markets to flourish or grow," Kolderup says, "proven interoperability has to be available."

Because the specification requires only a change to the software, as opposed to hardware changes, Kolderup expects products leveraging the BLE mesh network will be made commercially available within months—most likely beginning with building-automation solutions.